Archive for March, 2011

Little Boxes on the Hillside

I enjoyed my last few days in Houston – the friends, the warm weather. On the decluttering front, which has started afresh, I had to regift a few bulky parting gifts because they would not fit in my suitcase.

We arrived Sunday night, and KC* went to work on Monday morning. The movers came and I found myself surrounded by boxes.

Our queen boxspring, pictured here, would not fit up the stairs. Because I did not personally supervise the movers’ attempt (I was out getting coffee), KC wants to try again. I am certain it will be loads of fun.

While a nice young man from DirecTV installed some sort of superdish so KC can watch the rest of the cricket World Cup (after which we plan to get rid of cable and enjoy internet-based entertainment), I sorted our CD collection and set aside a stack of jewel cases for disposal. I’m still figuring out how and where to recycle everything.

Uploading CDs to iTunes and unpacking are a multitasking match made in heaven, I must say. Yesterday, desperate for home-cooked food, I tackled the kitchen.

It was challenging because a lot of the shelving is high up. Also, I had to clean the fridge to get rid of a fishy funk, which still lingers. All told, it’s a very nice kitchen. The “after” pictures will have to wait a bit for a few reasons. Here is an in-process shot of my collection of seasonings.

It doesn’t look like much, but there are a lot. In Houston I had all the spices lined up on a shelf above the stove,  and I was trying to find a similar arrangement so that they could all be at eye-level, but it’s not possible. Also, even the high shelves are not tall enough to accommodate my taller bottles of oil. Boo.

On to happier things, I’ve been braving the freezing cold to explore a bit. These hills are beautiful.

And walking up them is no joke. I’ve been enjoying lots of informal exercize.

Yesterday, knowing that unpacking the kitchen while hungry would only piss me off, I went to the City Cafe for breakfast. It is a French-style cafe where my omelette came with this amazing first course.

I talked to the owner/barrista/server/cook for a while. There is lots to say about him, and about the bare-bones gym I toured, and the two grocery stores I visited, and a bunch of other things, but now I have to watch the end of this India-Pakistan match with KC and then attempt running on these crazy hills.

*I’m tired of saying “my husband.” He wanted to be “Tonto” on this blog, making me the Lone Ranger, which I think refers to both Texas and, possibly, the solitude that sometimes characterizes relocation (or something). Aside from the fact that I don’t identify at all with Texas and will probably be changing that subtitle soon enough anyway, I knew there was some cultural baggage associated with that particular fictional sidekick. I poked around and discovered that recent adaptations are almost entirely inoffensive to Native Americans, except that “Tonto” still means “fool” in Spanish. To be on the safe side, I hereby sacrifice cuteness on the altar of political correctness, and he will be known as KC until I think of a better moniker.

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Camping In

Poking around, I’ve discovered that the forgotten corners of our domicile are full of surprises. The pipe under our bathroom sink used to leak, and that cabinet happens to be where I store our toilet paper, so after the bottom half of a 12-pack of toilet paper got soggy, I lined the cabinet with a catalog to absorb some of the dampness before it ruined our paper products. I hate Victoria’s Secret, so I thought it was fitting for the job.

It was only when clearing out that space that I realized why a lingerie catalog wasn’t the greatest idea.

Luckily, I was able to scrape the sexy off.

Before the movers took away all of my kitchen gear, I prepared most of the food I had left, making things like kale-mushroom-tomato “quiche”. I should have seeded the tomato (look at that pith), and I put “quiche” in quotation marks because I didn’t use any milk or cream and only a little cheese (pepperjack), so it’s more like an omelette in a pre-fab pie-crust than a quiche. Still pretty delicious.

The movers came a week ago, so we’ve been camping out in a mostly empty apartment. My husband supervised the packing while I worked on my laptop at the coffeeshop, so I’m a little excited/scared to see what comes out on the other side. For example, I never dealt with this closet, in the guest room.

Now it looks like this.

I’m hoping most of that was empty suitcases, but who knows?

Anyway, I enjoy roughing it. The minimalist in me sleeps very well this way.

We’re eating out a lot, but at home, there’s been plenty to nosh on. Here is the saag paneer I made a while ago (which was not improved by its latest stint in the freezer), and some veggies (primarily cabbage, the most nutritious, affordable, longlasting, verstatile hunk of produce money can buy) drizzled with a dressing I made from yogurt and jarred cilantro chutney.

If you’re not freezing your fresh pita and defrosting them individually, as needed, on the gas-burner, you’re missing out.

Things have been busy and there’s lots to say and show, but the one laptop in our house (we usually have  at least two at any given time) is being used as an entertainment system, which limits its availability for things like blogging. I didn’t realize that I frequently use the computer when my husband is watching tv. Now I know.

I’m looking forward to having proper wireless internet set up in our new place. We’ve had a broadband card all this time, and we have to wander off if we both need internet. Ch-ch-changes…

I came across some photos taken during the first year we lived in this apartment; I’d forgotten how empty it was for so many months before we got around to buying furniture. We had a table (seen left) and a couple of chairs, and that was all. In the frame I can see my flip-phone and my rolling tobacco and the floppy leather journal I used up ages ago. Now I have an iPhone and I’m almost finished another journal, and that painting leaning against the wall in the living room is going to be painted over when we get around to it. It was also packed with all of our things, though we would have just as soon jettisoned it.

But living spare, without a couch or a bed or coffee-tables and all of the dressings: It wasn’t so bad then, and it isn’t so bad now.

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Bayou City Classic 10K

When my husband told me that the Pittsburgh plan was on, that he’d gotten the transfer he requested, my first question was “Will we still be here for the race?” We checked our calendars, and I was relieved that we would be.

Relocating involves some looking back as well as plenty of looking forward. Most of the changes I’ve undergone here in Houston are sort of nebulous and hard to explain, but at least one is clear and simple. I exercize now – habitually, regularly, all of that – and this was not at all part of my lifestyle 4 years ago. I started because my husband and I commute together, and he would go to the gym after work. Given the option of staring at the computer for a 10th hour (our work-days are 9 hours long) and “working out,” the choice was clear, even to me, the sort of person who, in Philly, “exercized” occasionally by walking the five miles home from the office drinking from a bottle of cranberry juice mixed with vodka. Road sodas, we called them.

At the gym, I started very slow, walking on the treadmill or riding the elliptical, just whiling away the time. Within a year, I’d gotten bored and made a point to at least work up a good sweat, if only to justify my shower afterwards. The heat here in Houston makes one feel perpetually grimy, and showering twice a day is a pleasant indulgence.

Last year, for our anniversary, the husband signed us up to climb Mount St. Helens. I had no particular interest in scaling peaks (still don’t, actually), but once I agreed to it, I was motivated to build up some endurance to reduce the likelihood of being carried down the mountain on a stretcher or whatever. To my surprise, I was among the faster hikers in our guided group, and I beat my husband to the top by a good 10 or 15 minutes. I swear I didn’t abandon him. The route was single-file up early-summer snow-pack, and anyway, that’s another story.

(That’s me waving good-bye on my way to the top.)

As corny as it sounds, this experience altered my self-perception. I was more physically capable than I imagined. As a young kid, I liked running and baseball and other athletics, though I was not very coordinated or strong or competitive. When I passed through puberty, my buxom frame seemed an impediment, and the seeming became reality in that way it does with such things. It was a full decade before I figured out how to work around it: doubling up on bras helps a lot. Getting over the ick factor of exerting oneself helps even more. When buying gear for Mount St. Helens, I found a sports-bra that worked alone (not that it was truly necessary for hiking, but whatever, it was part of the splurge), and equipped with this support and some newfound confidence, I took up running.

I built up my endurance very gradually, taking it one “run” at a time, happy with slight improvements, accepting of my less-than-stellar days. Sometimes the treadmill was a slog and sometimes it was enjoyable, and I soon realized that the unpleasant runs made the pleasant runs possible. Last summer I started running outside, and I enjoyed the balmy Houston mornings that left me dripping profusely (like showering from the inside out). I started writing down the distance and time for each run, so that I would know whether I was pushing myself as hard as I did the previous week. In January, we signed up for the Bayou City Classic 10K, and having this on the horizon kept me committed. I didn’t follow a formal training plan, but I read a lot of advice about preparing for a race, and I started to get excited. I was motivated to run even in the cold Philly winter when we were there to see family, and I kept my routine in Houston: at least two shorter, faster runs on the treadmill during the week, and one longer one on the weekend around our neighborhood.

Last week I scaled back, as is recommended so that the legs will be well rested. I followed another rule that made good sense: Do nothing new on race day. This meant using my ready-to-be-retired sneakers (which have served me well so far) and wearing my usual get-up, even though it looks more like pajamas than running gear. I also ate a late dinner so I could run on an empty stomach without feeling too weak. (For longer distances I realize I’ll have to balance my sensitive digestive system with proper fueling, but I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.)

It worked. I had no unnecessary distractions in the way of chafing attire or a troubled tummy when we joined the crowd downtown. I thought running in a pack would be disturbing, but this was a relatively small race (3,000 or so) and I was absolutely euphoric trotting along for the first mile surrounded by people, listening to the thumps of so many feet, everyone moving along together. I’m so accustomed to running alone.

(Photo from the Bayou City Classic Facebook page.)

It started to thin out a little, and by mile three I’d found my mark: a woman roughly my age, a few paces ahead, in a black t-back tank and black capri pants. I was briefly distracted by the faster runners coming back up Memorial Drive on the other side. Some of us clapped for them. I watched the first dozen or so of these elite athletes, and we clapped again for the woman who would be the first female finisher, but then I realized I’d slowed. I found my mark again and sped up to keep the gap between us short.

There was so much to look at and I was so thrilled to be there that I didn’t tire until well after we rounded the halfway point. I lost my mark again but didn’t mind. I planned to take it easy until the last couple of miles so that I could finish strong. When the weariness started to be demoralizing, I used one last bit of advice I’d read somewhere: Find your mantra. It was simple (warning, more corniness here): “Light feet. Strong legs.” Instead of feeling more leaden, my lower half felt more powerful; the brain is the engine, the propulsion.

I picked up my pace and found my mark again. Passing the 8K sign, knowing there was not much farther to go, I overtook her. A while later, she overtook me, but as we rounded the bend back into downtown, I passed her easily and pounded along. I sprinted through the finish chute, remembering how I sprinted at the end of the 5K I ran at age 8 (another story), and immediately saw my husband, who was hyperventilating a bit. He has the sporting spirit that pushes him up against his limits. He measures his performance against those around him, whereas I’m always measuring my enjoyment against my desire to perform well. (I don’t like pain. It hurts.)

(Photo from the Bayou City Classic Facebook page.)

After he calmed down, he told me I’d crossed the finish line just after 1-hour ticked past. I had been concentrating on my forward movement, so I didn’t even see the clock there. It’s a good thing he was paying attention because I’d put my chip on wrong, so I have no official time. Still, 1 hour is not bad.

One of my goals for the transition to Pittsburgh is to keep running. It’s challenging and fun, both as a solitary pastime and a public activity. It surely would have improved my physical and emotional health during high school and college, but better late than never. And Pittsburgh has a snowy winter and steep hills, so there will be new challenges to face.

Anyway, it seems appropriate to have done my first (or second, technically, I guess) road race in the city where I learned to love running as an adult. It’s a sort of good-bye and thank you to Houston for its flat terrain and mild winters, and for being so far removed from everything I thought I knew about myself that I’ve been free to explore this crazy “fitness” stuff. I’m leaving much stronger than I arrived.

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Habitat Hunting

Last Thursday we planned this last-minute trip to Pittsburgh for the purpose of finding a home. The reasons for the trip being last minute are complicated and not that interesting, so I’ll just say that we left within 24 hours of deciding to go (frequent flyer miles come in handy for such flights) and by Saturday morning we had three appointments lined up for showings.

I really thought the first place would be The One, judging by the pictures in the ad, its location on google maps, and its walkability score. My husband had been skeptical about the accuracy of www.walkscore.com, and this has indeed been an interesting test of its usefulness for relocating to a new city. It’s true that nothing can replace seeing a neighborhood with your own eyes and wandering through it on your own two feet.

The first place was in the South Side Slopes, a neighborhood that surpasses Manayunk and Roxborough in steepness of hills and narrowness of streets. Although one thing we missed a lot in Houston – the flattest city ever – was topography, this place is a bit intense. Adding to its detractors was that the (albeit awesome) house itself was a bit farther from the main drag than I prefer. The nail in the coffin was that, upon further consideration, the main drag itself, East Carson Street, is not one I want to be near on weekends. (In Philly terms, which I should probably stop using, I’d compare it to South Street and Old City combined, with a little bit of Delaware Avenue.) I think that I assumed there were other pockets of commerce and activity in the area, but Carson Street is pretty much it. 

After ruling that out, we had high hopes for the North Side, specifically the Mexican War Streets area. The place we looked at here was probably the best value in terms of amenities and space,  and it is a really lovely area with small, historic homes. In the 2 or 3 hours we spent in the neighborhood before and after the showing, we visited the one coffeeshop and the one pub. Before having finished our second beer, we realized how trapped we might feel having only these two establishments within walking distance. And worse, what if we hated all the regulars, or they hated us? It was a risk we were not willing to take. (The YMCA here did not have enough weight to tip the scales, unfortunately.)

By now, we had visited Butler Street, which was written up in the New York Times as a notable hub of revitalization (or gentrification, or whatever). Can I just say that acting upon the word of such sources is vaguely embarrassing? Especially for some one who values learning a place more organically? Perhaps this is why Lawrenceville was not higher on our list upon arrival. After seeing the South Side and North Side (which are, for the record, really lovely places – just not right for us right now), on the list it went.

This was all on Saturday. Yeah. Long day.

On Sunday we saw one place in Shadyside, which is probably the most convenient area to live without a car, except that (here come more Philly references, sorry!) it was like University City without any West Philly. That is to say, it is a very well-kept neighborhood with old trees and lovely architecture and plenty of cultural and commercial amenities, but it is a bit expensive and – I’ll just come out and say it – overrun with students. It was hands-down the most familiar-feeling place I’ve been in Pittsburgh, which sort of counts for something but I’m not sure what. Maybe Shadyside does have some equivalent to West Philly, the neighborhood where I lived as a student and as a young(er than I am now) professional, and where a lot of my family and friends still live, a place influenced by the nearby universities but still very much its own community. Anyway, Shadyside: I will be back for dinner sometime soon, but I will not rent in you this year.

(I’m remembering now that we did not look around much in East Liberty or Friendship, which were probably good candidates. We did not have a whole lot of time.)

Back in Lawrenceville, or perhaps Bloomfield, we saw one place that was flatly misadvertised as a two-bedroom when it was a weird, sort-of-one-bedroom bachelor pad, which still contained the possessions and stale odor of the current bachelor tenant. After that, we found a beautiful place in a great location, but the husband and I were not on the same page about its price and its size. The next day, we saw two more in Lawrenceville, and I was sufficiently convinced that the too-big, too-expensive place was special. Also, I was tired of looking. So we applied for that and will be moving there in a few weeks.

It’s pretty clear that I will not have time to do a massive purge of clutter and pantry items. Things are moving along at a brisk pace. More later!

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